Courier Connoisseur: Family Affair: The Drago Dining Dynasty
Posted Thursday, November 7, 2019 - 7:00 pm
By Carole Dixon
With over a dozen dining venues between four brothers from Sicily, this is undoubtably a family affair.
The L.A.-based Drago brothers are Celestino, Giacomino, Tanino, and Calogero. While they all travel to the beat of their own drum, they all have one thing in common, besides an unwavering loyalty to family and each other, their love of simple food with the best ingredients, which is one of the main reasons they have been so successful as a group for decades.
While they all navigate four prosperous corners of the business from Beverly Hills to Pasadena, Hollywood, and downtown, all roads seem to lead to their Beverly Hills flagship Via Alloro and Il Pastaio on Canon Drive and their office on Beverly Drive. Everything is there in Beverly Hills,” says Celestino. “You have to be careful because you go to spend one hour and get sucked in until 3 or 4 p.m.”
Another Drago hub is at the famous Petersen Automotive Museum where they have a catering facility and full-service restaurant. If you drop by to check out the Bugatti cars on the ground level, you also might catch Giacomino carrying in a bag of passion fruit from his tree at home to experiment in the kitchen or a few of the brothers having a playful rare lunch on the patio bantering over pizza. “In Sicily pizza is a cracker,” declares Giacomino while eating one of Calogero’s favorite pies with tomato, anchovy and black olive while he swipes his older brother’s phone to flip through the pictures from a recent trip home. “You don’t have to think, just eat!” chides Calogero. One thing is for certain, you will want a seat at this table.
Growing up on a farm in Messina, Sicily with a total of 8 siblings they all learned at an early age how to grow their own produce, milk cows to make ricotta, and cook with their beloved Mama who they have immortalized with their signature extra virgin olive oil called ‘Mama Drago.’
Celestino is the oldest and caretaker of the brood and has been in Los Angeles for the longest. His namesake Drago restaurant in downtown in L.A., just celebrated a 10-year anniversary, but don’t underestimate the baby of the brood Giacomino. His tenacity and drive for the business actually landed this Italian chef two Japanese sushi restaurants – one in Beverly Glen and one in Beverly Hills.
Tanino is a bit of a prankster with a passion for all things fungi and Calogero has a playful nature but has built a serious Sicilian wine list. They are equally hard working and talented at running parts of the family businesses.
Oldest brother of eight children.
First to came to L.A. in 1979
Longest running restaurant: Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills for 26 years, followed by Celestino in Pasadena 23 years, Drago 10 years.
Best Quote: “I still have to get my act together.”
Why did you want leave Italy and come to L.A.?
I wasn’t planning to come to LA as a young chef in Pisa, Tuscany. I was going to mechanical school and cooking at night. At the age of 21, I became chef. I was learning French cuisine and I starting getting a reputation as young kid who was pushing the envelope with Italian food.
A guy heard about me and bought me a round trip ticket to L.A. to check it out while I worked at Osteria Romana Orsini on Pico Boulevard. I wasn’t going to stay too long and here I still am.
How have you seen the industry change over the years?
It’s getting harder and it’s not the way it used to be. The biggest problem in general is the employees. There is not the passion and love- we don’t see that anymore. You see some individuals, but before everyone wanted to work and give the time. It was very nice to teach people and open your home.
Now they all want to be stars overnight?
Yes, ‘I did my two years at chef school.’ They think they will come out here and make 100,000 a year right away and it doesn’t work like that. You need passion, love and understanding it’s the hospitality business with respect to the ingredients. They all have to come together like a chain with and you have to be strong with each ring. If you don’t have the passion or love for the food you won’t get anywhere. The drive is very important but I don’t see it that much anymore. It’s a smaller group.
With 12 restaurants between the brothers, the employees we are all like a family. Some have worked with us for 25, 35 years. They understand and they have grown with us. We have had kids in the kitchen and they really want to learn and work. Some have their own restaurants now. Arturo has been our pasta guy 35 years and he’s part of the family.
But at least the ingredients are better now?
When I first came it was so raw and a disaster! People didn’t know an there was no need for it. I remember I used to make risotto with different rice because there was no Arborio [rice]. Radicchio? They didn’t even know what it was. I remember once we got a case and it was like gold. I also had a farmer taking the seeds to plant wide arugula, eggplant and tomatoes and basil.
After October there was no more fresh basil. We started to dehydrate and freeze or make a pesto. We put olives inside to save it. It drove me crazy since I grew up on a farm. So, I was growing basil in my apartment in Westwood on the balcony. It was nice to see by 1983 there were over 30 different kinds of basil growing in California. I was pushing and pushing for ingredients and talked to farmers to tell them what we needed. In a short period of time we were able to get so much stuff.
You even starting working with your own farm in Santa Barbara. What do you grow there?
About 5 years ago, I started working with a farm in Santa Barbara – with a guy who makes wine in Buellton. The climate is great. We mostly grow tomato but a little of everything. Eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini flowers. All the herbs and beets, radish, broccolini, swiss chard. From spring and summer to early fall we supply all of the restaurants. We grew up with that.
Tell us more about growing up on the farm.
My Mom made sure that all the kids knew how to do everything. That was the first thing after making the bed. My Dad gave us all a square piece of land with 10 rows to be in charge and how to plant everything and when to pick the tomatoes. How much water and why? We were little kids and still love it. We know how to milk the goat and cow to make ricotta. From there we were cooking. I got the most from my parents. Every 2-3 years there was another baby but I was fortunate to get one on one time from my parents.
From an early age you were pushing the boundaries with the ingredients?
Over there you make the same dish over and over. Pasta with tomatoes. Sometime, without even telling them, I would throw something with spice into the sauce and walk away. I was sneaking in ingredients.
When I grew up and went to Tuscany, that is when it really took shape with a passion for the food and business. Every day was a beginning and not the same things all the time. We made adjustments to the ingredients from the season. Fresh fish – you don’t pick up the phone and order the day before. Whatever was on the boat when it came in, you got it. You took everything like sardines and had to figure out how to use it even if it wasn’t the most popular. It wasn’t just all the branzino that everyone wanted.
What ingredient speak to you now?
I love game and that is my passion. It’s a challenge. Some are easy and some need more handling like Pheasant. White meat with no fat you so you have to really brine and cook slowly to keep it most. I love to deal with game and fish a lot. Depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I’m driven by the mood and day.
Who is the best cook in the family?
We get together as much as we can. I’m the best cook. Ask everyone we will say the same thing – that they are the best cook!
I’m the oldest and have to play the father figure. I had a responsibility when they all came over one by one. Not just how we do it but why we do it this way. Designing a menu. We have to put ourselves in everyone’s shoes. We have to play the vegetarian, the lighter, on the side, the big steak so we can please everyone. This is very important.
What is your food philosophy?
If you have a dish with a different ingredient just keep simple. My philosophy is to use the main ingredient and stop. If it’s good for me to eat then it’s good for everybody and I can put on the menu.
Do you have children who can take over the business one day?
I have 2 girls both at USC. They are studying communications. I had a talk with them. I’m not going to tell you what to do but you need to let me know if you’re going into the restaurant business so I can plan. I’m not going to push them. It’s a very hard business to be in especially for a woman so I’m not going to push them.
We do a lot of things for the Italian American Museum downtown to make sure that our kids and grandkids are going to learn about the last 150 years how we got here. They are doing a great job in promoting that.
Where are you spending most of your time?
I live in Sherman Oaks but I go a little bit of everywhere. I stop by Beverly Hills in the morning and go to the office a little bit, go by Il Pastaio Then I go to the Drago bakery in Culver City. We are doing all the bread for Mendocino Farms and pastry for Lemonade. It’s a 24-hour continuous business. Then I stop by the Petersen for a little bit to check on the events and restaurant but at night I try to spend a lot of time downtown at Drago Centro.
Second brother to come to L.A. in 1985.
22 years at Celestino in Pasadena.
Best Quote: “I want to learn until I die.”
You’re not in a chef coat today but I hear you are the best cook?
Whenever I have to jump in, I jump. I’m mostly in Pasadena now but I was on the westside for 24 years. When we have catering here [at The Petersen]. Whatever they need you have to jump in. The brothers we are very untied plus the team. We are all together when we have to be there.
What are you most passionate about in the kitchen?
I’m a very simple guy. I like the simple seasonal simple stuff. A nice piece of fish grilled with a touch of oil and lemon and a beautiful vegetable. I love pasta. You can make ten different types. Traditional spaghetti, basil with garlic and olive oil. This is my type of sauce. Then it depends on the weather. Maybe a spicy arrabiata sauce. I go with the flow. I don’t make a plan for what I’m going to eat tomorrow. Whenever I go to the market – I see the eggplant. What can I do? I made an eggplant soup. I never thought but people love it.
Tell us about your childhood:
We are a big family with 8 kids and no restaurant in town. My Mom, my Aunt, my grandma – we would bring stuff from the garden and the farm. I love this. Celestino one day told me to go to restaurant school. Simplicity is good. Use the best product with best ingredient. I come from a farmer. Olive oil and tomato, I love it – garlic and onion is me. I don’t’ eat a lot of meat or fish but I love pasta. I do a lot of vegetables, green beans steamed are the best with tomato, garlic, basil and olive oil.
What do you do in your rare downtime now?
Sometimes on Sunday I don’t want to see people or food. I need to start hiking and bond more with nature and parks. I always love that. On my day off I like to go hiking in Griffith Park with my daughter on Sunday. It’s beautiful and you see the trees and all of Los Angeles from Marina del Rey to Malibu. I like to entertain too. I love the restaurant business and the lifestyle. You have to like what you do. What is easy? Nothing. The restaurant business is tough but I like to learn. You stop learning when you die. I always like to watch it, see it and make it better.
Is that what sets you apart from other Italian restaurants?
I always trust everybody. I always respect it. The way we are as a beautiful family all united. We all work very hard and we make the customer happy. When I tried to change some dishes on the menu, they attacked me. Why did you do that? I put some peas in the lasagna. Some people didn’t like it. So, I put some meat in the sauce but I don’t call that lasagna I call it pasta Bolognese.
We are all together we are doing good and we work hard. I don’t want to eat Italian when I have a day off. That is one of the good things about L.A. you have the opportunity to try everything.
Fourth brother to come to the U.S. in 1990.
Mostly at Villa Alloro and Petersen Automotive Museum.
Best Quote: “The more you put on a plate the more chance you have to screw it up.”
What’s your kitchen motto?
Whatever it takes. I’m the jolly one covering everything but mostly I’m at Villa Alloro and I’m still in charge and events at Petersen since opening over 4 years ago.
Tell us about your day-to-day with the busy event space?
Doing events is different than running a restaurant. Celestino and I have been doing events and running a restaurant for 25 years but we have a structure of doing it and being in the place where we can do continental cuisine too. We have all types of food. We can do a taco station, dim sum, mac-n-cheese. I’ve cooked Italian food since I was 13 years-old. I didn’t want to go to school.
What are you most proud of?
Coming over here and learning everything from my brother Celestino – I still do! He was one of the best things that happened to me. 70 percent of the structure comes from Mom and home and the way we grew up. The farm, the chores the cooking. Making bread twice a day, planting the tomato. We didn’t plan it but we were 8 [children]. There is a lot of work. We started from there and we elevated to where we are now. The last 15 years everyone is talking about organic but we grew up with that. This is what makes things better for a chef. From planting to the cow and chickens. That is our structure and we try to keep it nice and simple. When I come up with a dish, and I show my chef I challenge them too to come up with something. Use less but the best quality and simple. That is how we grew up.
What is your specialty in the kitchen?
I created the mushroom soup at 15 years old. It started from Celestino. We grew up in a beautiful mountain town. This is where mushrooms grow. 35 years ago, people were scared. So, I started cooking a lot with mushrooms. I go hunting. It’s my hobby. Mostly porcini but also ovoli but its seasonal. We have them sent fresh [from Sicily.] Besides the truffle, these are the most prestigious. You don’t cook those but you eat them raw in a salad, they are egg shaped.
They are rarely in the restaurant but porcini is in the soup and on the menu for 22 years. I do it specially at the Petersen but it’s mostly at Villa Alloro.
When do you disconnect?
I live in Sherman Oaks but we are in the city more than we are home – that is just to sleep. I do cook if we get together on a Sunday. But all of us jump in and chip in. I cook more when I take my 2-month vacation in July and August. I just disconnect in Sicily. For 30 years I still go back to my culture, family and friends. Reconnecting with friends, nature and culture. We cook and when we get together, we are about 30 on my Mom’s side.
Tell us more about your family time back home?
That’s why I go and try to show that culture to my kids, niece and nephews. I have a 13-year-old daughter who wants to be a chef. I will support and love it. She’s a great baker. When she has time off, she is in the kitchen. They are with grandma. We don’t do dinner. Lunch is at 2 pm and we get up [from the table] at 5 pm.
At night we go out for dinner. We do everything from scratch and don’t go to the market to buy everything. In this business you appreciate it more. It’s unfortunate [that sometimes] it’s more about money than doing right and what it should be. If you come for dinner or lunch, I want you to get what you want. Olive Oil is an example. It’s a main ingredient but they are cutting it the extra virgin olive oil – the color and flavor. So, we produce our own. We don’t have a broker it comes straight from Sicily to us.
How is the industry different over here?
One example is the truffles. We have the white ones in the beginning of Sept. It’s not about the money, I want to give them to my client. They should come from Piedmont, Tuscany or Umbria – not Albania or Yugoslavia. We lost that culture but not just here also in Italy too. We still have the little towns but in the big city they want to copy and make money.
We still have our own butcher even and we know where the beef comes from and what they eat. Today it’s all about selection.
What are you excited about right now?
I’m excited about fish I love fish and pasta. Crudo, octopus and sea urchin is one of my favorites. We have some of the best tuna, the Japanese come to Sicily and buy it.
It becomes tradition. Tuna is the pig of the sea. You use everything. I introduced a lot the Sicilian dishes and culture. The bortaga and sea urchin. I like pastry too and started at 14 years old. But you can’t use imagination [with baking] it’s more precise.
Youngest, baby of the family.
Third brother to come over in 1989.
Based at Il Pastaio (26 years) and Villa Alloro, Piccolo Paradiso.
Best Quote: “I’m the one who likes to experiment more and take more risks.”
Which restaurant is your favorite to spend time?
I wing it. There is no favorite just like children. You love them all but each one has its own character and mood. You go to that place and you have to give what is needed. What works here at Petersen might not work at Villa Alloro. Beverly Hills is home for the business and me. I go to Il Pastaio, then Via Alloro and Piccolo Paradiso. There are four in Beverly Hills within walking distance. Then I come to Petersen but I don’t plan my day.
Petersen has a bigger kitchen and lot more room in the dining room with a different personality. I would like to have 9 restaurants that would all be like Il Pastaio. It’s like when you have a friend that’s spectacular– I want to have them all like that.
Do you all get together as a family when you’re not working?
When not working we try to get together – it’s pretty busy. We try on a Sunday but birthday and holiday we all do. When we go to Italy, we all stay together once a year. Mama, papa, sisters, and brothers. We have one sister here who managers Il Pastaio.
What do you miss most about home?
Depends on what’s in season or what I’m in the mood for that reminds me of my grandmother. We can make tomato and basil pasta here but grandmother used to make the same. You can’t reinvent that. You can use best product. Olive oil, tomato and pasta but in Italy, when you are a chef there you really need to go see a psychiatrist every month. Because whoever walks into your restaurant. ‘The pasta was good but you should try the one of my sister-in -law.’ Going to a restaurant they need to find something a little different. You eat in at home a few times a week but you know what a risotto is. You get the service and ambiance when you go out.
What’s your favorite dish to make?
No such a thing of what is your favorite when you love food! It’s what are you in the mood for. What is the season. When fall comes I think of porcini and smelling the wine when I’m walking down the street. Mama used to make farinata but November comes and I’m thinking of chestnuts, marinated olives or the first sausage. But in the summer, they have zucchini season and eggplant, the fresh figs and you live the season. That is why I always love the Santa Monica farmers market.
How did the Sushi restaurants come about?
I love the Beverly Glen Center neighborhood and ran into so many guests there. I wanted to open but the Landlord had a no compete – and they already had 2 Italian restaurants. I kept insisting. He had a Japanese restaurant opening and called to see if I wanted to do it. I hired a Japanese chef and manager and have been there for 15 years. The culture is what we offer. The food is Japanese but I added Sicilian sea salt, lemons, capers and told them to play with it. They do an uni risotto with a yuzu zest and it’s very good. The chef from there worked for 9 years and then we moved him down to Beverly Hills to open Yojisan six years ago.
What is the key to your longevity?
What is the success of the restaurant? It’s the guests. I share time with them and listen to their visions. We cannot afford to say no in our family and we always honor a guest.
Why did you want to come to L.A. to join Celestino?
I went to cooking school in Italy but was not what I expected. Celestino came here first to South Beverly Drive. I begged my parents to let me come for 3 months to learn English in 1989. 3 months became 18 months. But what I learned with my brother in a year would have taken 10 years in Italy. The system here is amazing. I adopted it and I love it. I thought Beverly Hills would be a small village like where I came from but it was something different.
What else do you like to do when you in Beverly Hills?
I love walking from my house. When I walk, I feel the community and the village and what goes on. On Sunday I go by the park and go to the restaurant and I live a different experience. Otherwise I get in the car and it’s the same routine.
What motivates you and keeps it interesting?
I love gardening that is my passion. I only work for my kids right now they are kids. They need to explore and find their own passion. I told my 15-year-old Allegra, if you do this business you need to do it on a smart level. It’s not easy. Go to school and get all your education. In the meantime, she comes to work with me at Villa Alloro. Just to be there. What I learn from her and the conversation we can have in the kitchen is amazing.